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December 4, 2009

Transaction Action

The Fox and the Walking Man

by Christina Kahrl

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OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired 4C-R Jake Fox and INF-S Aaron Miles and $1 million from the Cubs for RHPs Jeff Gray and Ronny Morla and OF-L Matt Spencer. [12/3]

When I was a child, I was forced to do childish things. This was for my self-improvement. Whereas I might have preferred spending my summers on horseback or painting the barn or reading Bruce Catton and Goethe, my parents, in their wisdom, signed me up for summer musical comedy theatre two summers running. While I appreciated this later-I got to avoid a compulsory art class in high school, apparently having already gone arty enough-since I was strictly chorus material, I spent most of those summers standing around or waiting when I wasn't singing badly. The first year, that involved a joyless performance of The Apple Tree-if your children aren't in it, take my advice, don't go. The second act of this plotless exercise involved the challenge of a young lover having to pick between two doors, behind one, a tiger ("In Carmichael?"), the other, a lady. ("In Carmichael?")

Naturally, it's to the memories of this choice that my mind went when, in getting Jake Fox and Aaron Miles, it's as if you were effectively being asked to choose both doors, and have both the lady and the tiger move in with you for at least 162 games. You may not even be quite sure which one's the problem roommate, and it might very turn out you don't know what to do with either of them now that they're around.

However, the A's being the A's, they've got Fox, and that could be sort of cool. He can't really play any position, but there's value to being willing-if-bad at five of them, and even with Eric Chavez's latest comeback going about as well as Bonnie Prince Charlie's as third-base restorations go, there's a good chance Fox will be pressed into action as a third baseman of only resort. If Chavez is healthy enough to play-folk legends and East Bay oral histories speak of such days in the distant past-Fox can help out at DH, handle first base in case Daric Barton never grows up or Chris Carter is not yet ready, or go get potted in one outfield corner or the other, waiting for his next at-bat. Aside from the defense problem, however, there's the more basic proposition, that Fox may just not be all that. The Corn Country Masher might have brewed up something potent in Iowa in his age-26 season, but he's still not a walker-13 UBBs in 240 big-league PAs with the Cubs last year, and 74 in 1967 career PAs in Double- or Triple-A). So he's a hacker, which isn't the end of the world, as long as he's slugly enough with his hacks. Given that he's already 27, that's about the limit of his virtues. He does hit the ball hard, yes, and his performance with the Cubs, as far as it went, wasn't a product of the BABIP fairy or a lineout rate spike or anything unusual on that score. I could see him being helpful in a Keith Moreland-y 1987 sort of way if everything went well, not that it would make the pitchers all that happy, but it beats a repeat of the Jack Hannahan experience once Chavez goes away again.

The agony is that it involves the team I root for taking on one of my least-favorite players in baseball, one of the game's all-time reigning futility infielders-Aaron Miles. Jim Hendry might have gulled by his 2008 BABIP spike (.342), but when that predictably went pumpkin, so did Miles' utility, because he's not a glove man, or a baserunning threat, or someone who walks. Power? That's something other people hold over him-managers, pitchers, baristas. I suppose it's soothing that the Cubs are paying a million bucks to ameliorate their error, but that still means the A's are shelling out $1.7 million for a player who's decisively among the worst options in his class. Getting Jake Fox compensates some of that, but the A's could probably just eat the $1.7 million and find what they actually need for the purposes of their middle-infield reserve: a guy who can play short well enough to spot for Cliff Pennington's shortcomings as far as range. That isn't Miles.

Which leaves the question, which one is which? Miles could eat up outs voraciously, or Fox could be ferocious at the plate. Either one's nagging limitations could leave the roster a man down or two. It essentially cost the A's nothing they couldn't afford to give up, but beyond placeholders for a team that seems mired in place, did they really get all that much?


ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Outrighted RHP Kyler Newby and C-S Luke Carlin to Reno (Triple-A). [12/3]

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Outrighted 1B-R Barbaro Canizares to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [12/3]

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded 4C-R Jake Fox and INF-S Aaron Miles and cash to the Athletics for RHPs Jeff Gray and Ronny Morla and OF-L Matt Spencer. [12/3]

The package isn't really all that special, but then this deal wasn't about adding Jeff Gray's hit-or-miss blazing fastball or Ronny Morla's changeup or adding a corner outfielder to maroon in Iowa or the Southern League. It was about getting rid of stuff you didn't know how to use in Fox, or didn't want and certainly regreted in Miles, and most of all, it was about getting a spot on the 40-man roster back heading into the Winter Meetings. That last is significant because Jim Hendry does like to play around with the Rule 5 draft, and with three slots open on the 40-man, suggesting that he's going to nab somebody shouldn't be cause for much surprise.

As for the nondescript loot received, Gray's the prize of the trade, as far as that goes. His fastball runs hot and flat. There's a very good chance that he'll wind up in the Cubs' pen as an extra guy, giving them a super-Samardzija in his proper role, and with none of that nagging Notre Dame-y noxiousness or sticker shock to distract you. Morla's a tall Dominican in his fourth year as a pro, yet only headed towards his age-22 season. He got lit up in the Northwest League in each of the last two years, but those kids who weren't clubbing his pedestrian fastball were flailing at a good changeup; combine the two campaigns, and he's struck out 150 batters for Vancouver in 138 2/3 IP. While that's impressive, for every Doug Jones, there's a growing population of people who will not be Doug Jones; it's now at N+1. You might expect Spencer to wash up in the majors at some point, now that he's been part of two trades-the '08 deal that put Joe Blanton in Philly, and now this one-and after he enjoyed a .289/.345/.488 age-23 season split between High- and Double-A. That sounds more impressive than it was, because 10 of his 19 homers came as an older player in the Cal League, clubbing kids like so many baby seals. Promoted to the Texas League, his bat got tweener-y with few walks, and since he doesn't play center, you can expect his career might not get out of flyover country for anything more than the odd cup of coffee.

What this means for those still in Cubbies' blue is that Sam Fuld and Andres Blanco and Micah Hoffpauir might now all make the team, instead of one of them being the odd man out. None of them will start, and the club already has two other likely locks for the bench in Koyie Hill and Mike Fontenot. Admittedly, I'd be happier if they found a solid right-handed bat for the bench, but they may well end up eliminating that need if they do achieve a deal that puts Milton Bradley anywhere else but Wrigleyville. That said, one of the reasons why they might not wind up with joy in a Bradley deal is their desire to move Kosuke Fukudome back to a corner, which leaves them trying to convert Bradley into something that doesn't get in the way of that, or, if the much-discussed Pat Burrell deal happened-would make Sam Fuld the most regularly used backup center fielder the Cubs have had since Doug Dascenzo. That'd make some bleacher creatures happy, of course.


NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed INF-L Alex Cora to a one-year, $2 million contract with a vesting option for 2011. [11/30]
Signed C/1B-R Chris Coste to a one-year contract. [12/3]

I don't see the expense for Cora as unreasonable, but he's got a mishmash of useful features, batting lefty, playing a solid middle infield, the little man's suite of offensive weapons, and a satisfactory walk rate. As someone likely to get his share of work in at second during Luis Castillo's rest breaks and as a better temporary replacement for Jose Reyes at short than most of the dreck they had to resort to, he has his uses. I'm definitely surprised that Coste managed to wangle a guaranteed 40-man roster spot-considering the lousy year he had with the Phillies and Astros, what else is there to say but, "Nicely done!" However, he adds some value as the rare catcher who helps out at first base, and some (mixed) experience as a pinch-hitter. That's if they call him up during the course of the campaign to come; it's already being talked about how his real task is to mentor Josh Thole in Buffalo.


PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed C-L Brian Schneider to a two-year, $2.75 million deal. [12/1]
Signed INF-R Placido Polanco to a three-year, $18 million deal; signed MI-R Juan Castro to a one-year deal plus a club option for 2011. [12/3]

Say this for Ruben Amaro Jr., he moves fast, because he knows what he wants. I'm left in a situation where I think I have to endorse Schneider's signing as the best of the three, because setting aside the semi-cool proposition that as the Mets' former regular means he'll have some good intel to share with his new team, there's the more general proposition that he'll take the odd walk, plays a decent catcher, and his lefty-ness makes him one of the few options on the market who might be a good caddy for Carlos Ruiz. OK, he's the rich man's Paul Bako. Whee.

Signing Juan Castro to back up Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley is a definite mystery, especially in light of the decision to sign Polanco to play third-one of Polanco's perceived virtues is that he can play short if you asked, and he's an asset at second. So why add a utility infielder who can't hit because he doesn't and won't, when you have two tremendous, relatively durable regulars, and you planned on adding another infielder who can play multiple positions, and who you're signing because he can play multiple positions? Because he's a bubbly butt-patter thoroughly familiar with pine time? A witty raconteur? Somebody with a pilot's license in case the team plane's other options all had the fish? Otherwise, you've got a glove man you don't need and will need to desperately avoid using as a pinch-hitter.

Which leaves the big-ticket item, Polanco. He does give them the advantage of being able to move a decent hitter over to second on Utley's days off, and spot-start Greg Dobbs or whoever to keep a bat in the lineup. He's signed to his age-34 through age-36 seasons at the very least-there's a mutual option for a fourth year that would bring the deal's total value to $22.5 million, and maybe I'm just so much a skeptic that I can't see Polanco turning the money down at 37, I can see how he'd be sort of fun to have in the DH-less league as an eighth-slot hitter, because his greatest virtue is an ability to make contact. Unfortunately, you can expect him higher in the order, seventh at least, and maybe higher still if they decide that Jimmy Rollins isn't a leadoff man any more. The difference between his 2008 and 2009 seasons is almost entirely a matter of BABIP fluctuation, but given that making contact is Polanco's game, it goes far to explain his 20-point drops in EqA from 2007 to '08 to '09. Sure, maybe he's a decent bet to get back towards '08 and wind back up around .270, and that's employable-not good-at third base. (His career rate is .265.) Six million simoleons per year for adequacy? And an almost-certainly declining grip on it over the course of his contract, thanks to Father Time? Admittedly, the market for third basemen's pretty weak-no make-believing that Hank Blalock's a third baseman, thank you. Even so, not even moving to the weaker league is going to make this look that good for that long. The Phillies would have been better served to have paid for a short-term option, perhaps even Troy Glaus, than gun for the slender benefits of this sort of multi-year commitment.

I guess my other issue with the move is while this doesn't really improve the club all that substantively relative to employing Pedro Feliz, it does add an older player to a team whose core is slowly moving into its 30s. If we see additional malfunctions like Rollins' sudden hackery and little improvement with that issue, who's going to provide the support? Raul Ibaņez, of the precipitous .232/.326/.448 second half? Polanco? The Carrian Ruider combo behind the plate? It's a good thing they have Cliff Lee-they're going to need him to mount a division title defense, let alone the pennant.


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed C-R Jason LaRue to a one-year, $950,000 contract; signed INF-S Ruben Gotay to a minor-league contract. [11/30]

Gotay's in vogue in some circles as a big-time find, because he drew a hundred walks, he drew a hundred walks, and... he drew a hundred walks! Which he did, and I'll wait for those in the audience hyperventilating with excitement over that to re-gas and regain your seats. I guess I'm a little less enthusiastic, because assertions that he did that while retaining his other performance characteristics... well, it just doesn't wash.

In his age-26 season, Puerto Rico's Kid Christmas did do several of the things we associate with his performance-like kick balls around the infield whether he was at second or third, struggle to turn double plays, and struggle to hit lefties (.176/.320/.259). He hit-and especially walked-against right-handers effectively, going .301/.458/.507. He did that in Reno, a place with a Park Factor of 1143, the best hitter's park in the PCL... no, not just that, the best hitter's park in affiliated baseball, anywhere, any league, in the last three years, save for one or two winter-ball practice fields. His home ISO was .211, his road ISO in the rest of the PCL-no shabby place to be a hitter-was .150, and everywhere that wasn't Reno in that circuit, he hit .250. And he's in his career peak.

But, but... but he drew a hundred walks! So he did. That's really about his walking a lot off of the people that he could hit, right-handers, and he got a walk from Triple-A righties in more than 22 percent of his at-bats. That, friends, is impressive. It's also the one thing that Ruben Gotay's really got going for him. It's the best of things, of course, but roll that into this package: He's not a good infielder at second or third. He can't hit lefties. He doesn't run. He doesn't seem likely to hit .250 in the majors, and he won't walk 22 percent of the time against big-league righties. Translating his big year in baseball's best hitters park gives you a nice .217/.370/.361 line. That's Glenn Gulliver with modest power and no glove.

Is that useful? In the right circumstance, of course it is-it's better than Bobby Crosby, because at least he's good for something. Put Gotay in a loose platoon with a right-handed hitter who can murdilate lefties and play plus defense and pinch-run for him-say, Jayson Nix-and you have a short-term fix at the keystone. You don't really have a solution, and as is, you'd need a manager who's willing to look past Gotay's many flaws and be able to say "I'll take that." To his credit, Tony La Russa did employ Lance Blankenship once upon a time, so you can always hope that he's willing to give the idea a spin. Put Gotay atop the order in front of Albert Pujols, and you'd be able to maximize his value (by getting his at-bats early in-game), and then be able to minimize his defensive innings by pulling him after the third or fourth plate appearance. But there's a lot you'd have to accept in terms of limitations, and you're operating under the assumption that Gotay's ability to walk at this rate will remain somewhat undiminished-because if he doesn't have that, he's effectively got nothing.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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